The Periodic Table and the Four New Elements

Was rummaging through my files on the computer, when I came upon this piece. It was written for ChemMag, the annual journal of the Department of Chemistry, Women’s Christian College, Chennai. It appeared in print in the 2016 issue.


The year 1869 was momentous for Chemistry. It was the year when Dmitri Mendeleev published the first ever Periodic Table [1]. But then, discoveries in science do not occur in vacuum (unless your protocol calls for vacuum, i.e.). Mendeleev gave us the Periodic Table, but he was drawing on work already done by Antoine Lavoisier, Johann Döbereiner, John Newlands and several others.

Historians of Chemistry believe that one fine night in 1869, Mendeleev literally fell asleep on his desk atop some note cards. Each of these cards carried information on every element known at that point. Mendeleev had 65 cards to work with. When Mendeleev awoke, he knew exactly how these cards were to be arranged, and he set about arranging these 65 cards in a systematic order based on atomic weights, which eventually gave us Mendeleev’s Periodic Table [2].

That was 1869. And this is 2016. From 65 elements then, our periodic table now boasts of 118 elements. We know that the elements in the Modern Periodic Table are arranged in increasing order of atomic numbers. We have the Groups – the vertical columns – which house elements based on their similarities in chemical properties, due to the same number of electrons in the outermost shell. And we have the Periods – the horizontal rows – which have elements arranged in the order of increasing atomic number, signifying an increase in the number of outer electrons, thereby demonstrating a move from metallic to non-metallic characteristics of the elements.

As new elements were discovered, they were provided appropriate places in the Periodic Table depending on their similarities with elements already known. But perhaps the genius of Mendeleev is in the predictive power of his Periodic Table. (That said, opinion however divides on whether it was Mendeleev or Newlands, who first left empty spaces for undiscovered elements.)

As the world was getting ready to ring in the new year, on 30 December, 2015, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) announced that they had confirmed the existence of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. This meant that the hitherto incomplete seventh row of the Periodic Table was now complete [3].

All of these four elements are highly unstable superheavy elements with very short lifetimes, and are synthesised by bombarding heavy metals with ionising radiation.

Element 113 – with a placeholder name of ununtrium – was synthesised at the RIKEN Nishina Center for Accelerator-based Science in Japan. The lab lead by Kosuke Morita had been trying to synthesise this element since 2004 with varying degrees of success.

Elements 115 (ununpentium), 117 (ununseptium) and 118 (ununoctium) were synthesised by particle accelerator scientists from the US and Russia.

With the elements synthesised, now comes the rather interesting task of naming them. Like astronomers discovering cosmic bodies, scientists discovering elements also get the right to name them. It has been suggested elemental names can be based on mythological concepts, places, famous scientists etc. (Polonium, Einsteinium – ring a bell?) In line with this thought, element 113 discovered by the Japanese scientists may well be named Nipponium. Deliberations are on regarding the naming of the other three elements.

In theory, the Periodic Table could still get bigger. We’ll have to wait and watch. Or contribute, and watch. But amidst this scientific celebration, there remains a rather comic situation that calls for our attention: Education Boards all over the world need to update their Chemistry textbooks which have now been rendered obsolete due to these discoveries!

[1] On the Relationship of the Properties of the Elements to their Atomic Weights, D. Mendelejeff, Zeitschrift für Chemie 12, 405-406 (1869).

Ig Nobel, celebrating the unusual in science

It’s no secret that the Nobel prize is the highest award in the natural sciences. There’s however another breed of altogether interesting awards that celebrates dicoveries in science that first make us laugh, and then make us think. The Ig Nobel awards. Presented every year at Harvard by Nobel laureates, the Ig Nobel awards laud the light-hearted side of science. Science and light-hearted, do I hear you murmur with disbelief? Well, yes, that’s a legitimate combination! What follows is  the proof not in the pudding, but in patents and books and journals.

Clocky – The alarm clock on wheels. Can jump from a 3ft nightstand.

The snooze function in the alarm clock is the debilitating soporific weapon in many a crusader’s arsenal. Self included. Now imagine the snooze function in an alarm clock that makes it rise to dizzying heights, or roll to discreet locations, in this case. An alarm clock that leaves you no option but to get up when it goes off! That’s possible on planet earth because of this devious contraption called Clocky. The idea here is that the sly clock runs away from you when it rings at the set time, and in a bid to silence the damned thing you run after it. Neat sensors doing their job rather neatly in here. The simple logic underpinning the device being: now that you have risen, you might as well shine. Gauri Nanda of MIT bagged the Ig Nobel in 2005 for Economics for this invention.

Or consider the Ig Nobel awarded to Thomas Thwaites in 2016 for Biology. Thwaites roamed the Swiss Alps with a herd of goats in a prosthetic goat suit made specifically for this adventure. A British designer, Thwaites survived on grass using an artificial rumen in this holiday he took from being a human. In an NPR interview, when asked if he had learned anything about goat behavior during this experiment, Thwaites replied, “I was trying to forget myself. I wasn’t trying to learn about them.” That’s mindfulness all right atop the Alps in a goat suit.

The GoatMan Thomas Thwaites (L) with a member of his herd.

One of my personal favourites in the Ig Nobel pantheon is the award given to Peter Barss of McGill University, Canada for his impactful paper in The Journal of Trauma, titled Injuries due to Falling Coconuts. Here’s the abstract of the paper. Note the very accurate last sentence.

Falling coconuts – injurious to human health.

Initiated in 1991, the ten Ig Nobel awards given every year, ostensibly though a parody of the Nobel prizes, are in fact awarded to spur people’s interest in science, technology and medicine. It’s ultimately doffing one’s hat to scientific imagination; it’s a nod to the scientific spirit that treads down unusual paths.

Finally, here’s an article I wrote for The Wire last year prior to the Ig Nobel announcement.

PS. The Thomas Thwaites image caption may or may not be a shout out to the person who captioned this Martin Solveig image.

A couple of science competitions

1. The world needs ideas. Innovative ideas change the world for the better. Do you have one? And does it show the way ahead for our energy, water and food issues? If yes, hop on here and take part in the Shell Ideas 360 Global Competition. But hurry, the last date is 15 December, 2016.

UG/PG students above 18 years of age are eligible to apply.

The prize: A trophy, trip to London, and a Nat Geo adventure trip.

2. While on that date, here’s a competition within our shores. The 7th National Science Film Festival & Competition 2017.

science film festival.jpg

The event will be held from 14 to 18 February, 2017 in Kolakata. There is a category for films made using mobile phones. One of the main thrusts of the competition is to foster scientific temper. Details here.

A ticket to clouded leopard country

Happened to read this article in The Hindu yesterday, and was taken in by the sheer beauty in the writing. The evocative imagery in the piece will effortlessly transport you to a land far, far away that’d have you asking for more.

Please read the article in its entirety. Its opening paragraph follows to lure you in.


For the kind attention of (not)-passengers: the Science Express will arrive shortly on Platform Number 3.14159

Okay, here’s a simple game. Choose the answers that suit you best from among the following.

a) You are a graduate/postgraduate in science.
b) You are passionate about science communication.
c) You have a deep-seated inexplicable love of trains.
e) You have good people-skills.
f) You can come up with innovative, fun ideas to explain scientific concepts.

If you answered yes to all, I need to know you.

No seriously, if you answered yes to all, the following opportunity might just be for you.

The Science Express is all set to roll out next month. And Vikram A. Sarabhai Community Science Centre is looking for a Science Communicator for this project.

Have a look at the advertisement, and chug along.


The advertisement appeared in The Hindu on 14 September, 2016. Look here for the advertisement in the the pdf format.

What is element 16?

Why, a ten-year-old kid could answer that. Run out and find me a ten-year-old kid.

Was that your response to the question in the post’s title? Well, if you answered in the affirmative you and I have something in common. And that something is termed: a liking for Groucho Marx.

In the movie Duck Soup (1933), Groucho Marx plays the head of a mythical country Freedonia. At a Cabinet Meeting, Marx’s Minister of Finance presents to him the Treasury Department’s Report, and asks him if it was all clear. Unable to fathom the report, Marx famously insinuates that a kid of ten could deal with it, and beseeches the Minister to go fetch such a kid. Well, that’s Marx! But unlike Marx, who had no answer to the question posed to him, I do know what element 16 is. It’s S. Hah!

But what’s English for S? Is it sulphur? Is it sulfur? Or does it depend on which side of the Pacific you come from?

The answer, it turns out, has nothing to do with the Pacific, but everything to do with the IUPAC. IUPAC is the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry – an international federation that represents chemists in individual countries, and is responsible for nomenclature of chemicals, among other things. Regardless of the other things, here’s the relevant thing: IUPAC has decided that element 16 should be spelt ‘sulfur’.

Here’s a Nature article that gives you some history to this. And here’s a brief peek into sulfur’s etymology.

So, it’s decided. It’s sulfur, with an f!

The post came up as a result of a discussion with one of my former students who now teaches Chemistry. Our discussion somehow veered (of all things) to the spelling of sulfur, and so you have this post.

Science journalism and a game of Chinese whispers

(Or a game like that.)

And on the need for a better, objective game there. Laugh riot alert!